Graphic Design in the Postmodern Era
By Mr. Keedy
This essay was based on lectures presented at FUSE 98,
San Francisco, May 28, and The AIGA National Student Design Conference,
CalArts, June 14, 1998. It was first published in 1998 in
Any discussion of postmodernism must be preceded by at
least a provisional definition of modernism. First there is modernism with
a capital "M," which designates a style and ideology and that
is not restricted to a specific historical moment or geographical location.
Modernist designers from the Bauhaus in Germany, the De Style in Holland,
and Constructivism in Russia, share essentially the same Modernist ideology
as designers like Paul Rand, Massimo Vignelli, and Eric Spiekermann. Its
primary tenet is that the articulation of form should always be derived
from the programmatic dictates of the object being designed. In short, form
Modernism was for the most part formed in art schools,
where the pedagogical strategies were developed that continue to this day
in design schools. It is a formalist, rationalist, visual language that can
be applied to a wide range of circumstances. All kinds of claims can and
have been made in an effort to keep Modernism eternally relevant and new.
The contradiction of being constant, yet always new, has great appeal for
graphic designers, whose work is so ephemeral.
Then there is the modern, with a small "m."
It is often confused with Modernism with a big M, but being a modern
designer simply means being dedicated to working in a way that is
contemporary and innovative, regardless of what your particular stylistic
or ideological bias may be. Modern designers who were not necessarily
Modernist would include designers like Milton Glaser, Charles and Ray
Eames, and Tadanori Yokoo.
With all the confusion in these early days of
formulating theoretical paradigms, it is understandable why some designers
have given up trying to connect their practice to contemporary theory. By
the time postmodernism came along, many designers were quite happy to
dismiss it as a trendy fad or irrelevant rambling, and be done with it.
That is exactly why I think it is important to examine some of the
connections between the postmodern condition and graphic design.
Although there has always been some confusion about
what postmodernism is, the most obvious feature is that it is a reaction
(not rejection), to the established forms of high Modernism. The second
most prominent feature of postmodernism is the erasing of the boundaries
between high culture and pop culture. But probably the most contested
feature is that of "theoretical discourse," where theory was no
longer confined to philosophy, but incorporated history, social theory,
political science, and many other areas of study, including design theory.
Postmodernism is not a description of a style; it is the term for the era
of late capitalism starting after the 1940's and realized in the
1960's with neo-colonialism, the green revolution, computerization
and electronic information.
Postmodernism didn't have much impact on graphic
design until the middle of the 1980s. Initially, many designers thought it
was just undisciplined self-indulgence. A hodgepodge of styles, with no
unifying ideals or formal vocabularies, dreamed up by students in the new
graduate programs. But in fact it was a new way of thinking about design,
one that instigated a new way of designing. Designers began to realize that
as mediators of culture, they could no longer hide behind the
"problems" they were "solving." One could describe
this shift as a younger generation of designers simply indulging their egos
and refusing to be transparent (like a crystal goblet). Or you could say
they were acknowledging their unique position in the culture, one that
could have any number of political or ideological agendas.
The vernacular, high and low culture, pop culture,
nostalgia, parody, irony, pastiche, deconstruction, and the anti-aesthetic
represent some of the ideas that have come out of the 80s and informed
design practice and theory of the 90s. After the 80s designers may still
choose to be anonymous, but they will never again be considered invisible.
We are part of the message in the media. In the postmodern era we are not
just mediators of information, but individuals who think creatively and
visually about our culture.
Although Jan Tschichold has been celebrated as an early
proponent of modernist asymmetric typography, designers have increasingly
come to respect his earlier calligraphic and latter classical work.
Tschichold's body of work is an important precedent for today's
postmodern typography in that it represents diversity in ideology and
style. It was one that ranged from craft-based calligraphy and machine-age
modernism to neoclassicism.
Another important precursor to postmodernism was W. A.
Dwiggins, a designer who translated traditional values and aesthetics into
a modern sensibility. He was a tireless experimenter with form, who took
inspiration for his work from eastern cultures, history, and new
technology. Unlike Tschichold, Dwiggins never embraced the Modernist
movement nor was he deified by it. However, he was absolutely committed to
being a modern designer.
Although Dwiggins's and Tschichold's work
seems to have little in common, there is a similarity in how their work was
initially misrepresented. Tschichold was celebrated as a Modernist
typographer, which downplayed his more substantial body of design and
writing based on traditional and classical ideas. On the other hand,
Dwiggins has always been represented as a traditional designer in spite of
the innovative and experimental nature of most of his work.
It has only been in recent years that discussions of
Tschichold and Dwiggins have expanded to include the full scope and
plurality of their work. That is because the postmodern context has
encouraged diversity and complexity, and given us a critical distance to
assess Modernism and its ramifications. In the postmodern era, the line
dividing modern and classical, good and bad, new and old, has, like so many
lines in graphic design today, become very blurry, distressed and
In the late 80s, an anti-aesthetic impulse emerged in
opposition to the canon of Modernist "good design." It was a
reaction to the narrow, formalist concerns of late Modernism. It staked a
larger claim to the culture and expanded the expressive possibilities in
design. The new aesthetic was impure, chaotic, irregular and crude. A point
that was so successfully made, in terms of style, that pretty much
everything was allowed in the professionalized field of graphic design, and
from then on typography would include the chaotic and circuitous as options
in its lexicon of styles. In fact, most of the formal mannerisms of the
late 80s have continued to predominate throughout the 90s. But now
it's no longer an ideologically relevant, or even new style - now
it's just the most popular commercial style.
In 1989 I designed a typeface to use in my design work
for experimental arts organizations like Los Angeles Contemporary
Exhibitions and CalArts. I called the typeface Bondage Bold. Rudy
VanderLans saw it in some of my work and wanted to sell it through Emigre.
After adding a regular weight, normalizing the spacing, cleaning up the
drawings (with Zuzana Licko's guidance), and changing the name to Keedy Sans, it was finally released on an unsuspecting public in 1991.
I designed Keedy Sans as a "user," simply
based on a vague idea of a typeface that I had not yet seen but wanted to
use in my graphic design. Most typefaces are logically systematic; if you
see a few letters you can pretty much guess what the rest of the font will
look like. I wanted a typeface that would willfully contradict those
expectations. It was a typically postmodern strategy for a work to call
attention to the flaws and artifice of its own construction. But I never
thought of it as being illegible, or even difficult to read. I have never
been very interested in pushing the limits of legibility for its own sake.
Absolute clarity, or extreme distortion, is too simplistic a goal, and it
is ground that has already been well covered. I wanted to explore the
complex possibilities that lie somewhere in between and attempt to do
something original or at least unique.
At the time I had been using the American highway
Gothic typeface in my design work that I cut and pasted from a highway
signage manual. Another vernacular influence was the "f" from
the Fiat logo. But I was not only quoting low vernacular sources; it was
important that I mixed in high design sources as well. So I was thinking
about Akzidenz-Grotesk Black, which was somewhat exotic in America, because
I liked Wolfgang Weingart's typography. Overall I wanted a typeface that
was similar to Cooper Black, extremely bold with a strong idiosyncratic
personality. I think it is a very postmodern typeface in that it included
"high" and "low" vernacular quotation, and it is
self-consciously crude and anti-aesthetic in reaction to the slickness of
Modernism. The initial reaction to Keedy Sans was that it was too
idiosyncratic, it was "ugly," hard to read, and too weird to be
very useful. It's hard to imagine that kind of reaction to a type
design today. I guess nobody really cares any more.
In 1993, Keedy Sans was still able to cause a bit of
controversy among graphic designers, and it was starting to be a popular
typeface for music and youth-oriented audiences. Its popularity slowly but
consistently grew; by 1995 it was starting to look pretty legible and tame
compared to other new typefaces on the market. Eventually even the big boys
in the corporate world were no longer put off by my typographic antics, and
Keedy Sans made its way into the mainstream world of corporate
commercialism by 1997.
Eight years later, it is no longer considered an
illegible, weird, deconstructed, or confrontational design. Now it's
just another decorative type style, one among many. Its willful
contradictions are only what is expected in design today. I still think it
is an interesting typeface; that's why it's a shame that now it
signifies little more than the banality of novelty. Nowadays that seems to
be all a designer can expect from their work.
Resisting mainstream pop banality is an outdated
attitude that only a few designers of my generation worry about anymore.
Now most graphic designers need results fast; formal and conceptual
innovations only slow down commercial accessibility. It is hard for a
generation raised in a supposedly "alternative" youth culture,
which put every kid from Toledo to Tokyo in the same baggy pants and
t-shirt, to believe that relevant forms of expression can even exist
outside of pop culture. Today's young designers don't worry
about selling out, or having to work for "the man," a conceit
almost no one can afford anymore. Now everyone wants to be "the
man." What is left of an avant-garde in graphic design isn't
about resistance, cultural critique, or experimenting with meaning. Now the
avant-garde only consists of technological mastery: who is using the
coolest bit of code or getting the most out of their HTML this week.
Resistance is not futile; resistance is a very
successful advertising strategy. The advertising world co-opted our desire
for resistance and has been refining it in pop culture since the 60s. After
the 60s, advertising was never the same. It was the end of the men in the
gray flannel suits. To this day ad agencies are full of middle-aged
"creative directors" who talk and dress like twenty year-olds.
They exploit an endless supply of new, cutting edge design talent to sell
the same old stuff. By comparison, graphic designers were less successful
at using resistance as a vehicle for changing attitudes in their profession
in the 80s. That is because most designers did not want anything to
challenge their continuity with a design canon they had so recently
constructed. The only thing that the design establishment in the 80s was
interested in resisting was new ideas.
That is why ultimately the strategies of resistance to
Modernist dogma and the critique of the status
quo, from the late 80s, only led to what is
currently referred to as the ugly, grunge, layered, chaotic, postmodern
design of the 90s. Only now there is little opposition and no resistance to
what is an empty stylistic cliché. What I had hoped would be an
ideological victory over the tyranny of style mongering, devolved into a
one-style-fits-all commercial signifier for everything that is youth,
alternative, sports, and entertainment-oriented. The "official style
of the hip and cool" will probably be with us for some time, as it is
easy to do and little has been done to establish any standard of quality.
There have never been as many books published on
contemporary typography as in the past few years. Ironically, in spite of
all these new type books, there has never been less of a consensus as to
what is of interest or value in typography. Although these books are fun to
look at, you would be hard pressed to find any significant discussion,
criticism, debate, or even explanation in most of them. They include
anything and everything except critical, informative, and qualitative
analysis. This new cornucopia of type books is not the result of a sudden
renaissance in typography, but the result of the publishing
industry's ability to recognize and develop a commercial market. They
have no interest in "separating the wheat from the chaff," so
all this new work has just become "more grist for the publishing
One of the reasons Jan Tschichold went back to
traditional center axis typography was because when it was done by less
skilled designers, he thought it resulted in less offensive work than when
the more demanding asymmetrical modernist typography was poorly done.
Unlike traditional or Modernist typography, typography of the postmodern
era has not up to this point been clearly articulated, much less canonized,
making that type of qualitative judgment difficult at best. This situation
has led some designers to simply dismissing it all as garbage.
Even though the current publishing craze may be helpful
as self-promotion for a few designers and a design aid for the creatively
challenged, it may have done more damage than good to the promotion of
typography as a sophisticated or discriminating craft. Fortunately, on a
much smaller scale, some critical and historical ideas are still being
disseminated, in spite of the smaller financial rewards. Some design
history, criticism and theory has managed to get published in recent years,
but compared to the picture books, graphic designers aren't buying
The practice of graphic design has from the beginning
been intertwined with pop commercialism, but that does not mean that our
values and ideals, or the lack of them, have to be dictated by the
commercial marketplace. Just because thinking about design isn't a
popular activity doesn't mean it isn't an important one.
Graphic designers love new things, and new things love graphic
designers - like fire loves wood. Graphic designers loved the new
international corporate culture. But it was the advertising industry that
ultimately won the partnership with multi-national corporations. Then
graphic designers loved the new desktop publishing. But it took away a lot
of our low end projects, gave us the additional responsibility of
typesetting and pre-press, shortened our deadlines, and ultimately reduced
our fees. Now graphic designers love the new Internet. But maybe this time
we should stop and ask: "Does the Internet love graphic
Perhaps the Internet will simply co-opt graphic design,
incorporating it into its operating system. Maybe graphic design will cease
to exist as a discreet practice and just become another set of options on
the menu. Or is graphic design just a lubricant that keeps everything on
the info highway moving - are we just greasing the wheels of capitalism
with style and taste? If graphic designers play a major role in building
the bridge to the twenty-first century, will they be recognized for their
efforts? Do you remember typesetters?
Graphic design's ephemeral nature has practically
disqualified it from serious consideration as an important cultural
practice. For most non-designers, historical graphic design is valued as
nostalgic ephemera, while contemporary design is viewed as sometimes
amusing, but mostly annoying, advertising. Graphic design is not generally
accepted as having the cultural significance of other less ephemeral forms
of design like architecture, industrial design, and even fashion. This is
due largely to its short life-span and its disposable ubiquity. Will the
even more ephemeral and ubiquitous media of film titles, television
graphics, and the Internet create greater awareness and respect for graphic
design, or will such familiarity only breed contempt?
New media is a practical embodiment of the theoretical
paradigm established by poststructuralism. It was an idea about language,
communication and meaning before it was ever a technology. But now it seems
that the technology has eclipsed its raison
d'etre and it exists outside of any
theoretical critique. The often quoted cliché is that the new media
requires new rules and the old assumptions do not apply, even though
somehow the old consumers do. Curiously, the new media has not yet
developed a new theoretical paradigm, or even a new lexicon, to comprehend
this ideological shift. Ironically, the new buzzword is a familiar old
standby from grammar school art classes - it's all a matter of
Although intuition is a satisfactory explanation for a
five-year-old's crayon abstractions, it's a bit weak for
describing the computer-graphic-multinational-imperialism that is reshaping
our global culture. Intuition is a generic term for a perceptive insight
that is arrived at without using a rational process. It is a way of saying
"educated guess" without defining the education of the
"guesser." That one's source of inspiration could be
unknowable, or at least indescribable, after the death of the author, and
at the end of history, is understandable in these postmodern times. But
the unwillingness of graphic designers to recognize their
indebtedness to history, education, and their peers is not. At this
juncture in its history, graphic design practice needs a more rigorous and
responsible discourse. Maybe we should leave "instincts" and
"intuition" to our furry friends; then we could reinstate
history, education and current practice as our center for critical
reflection, discourse, and inspiration.
Theoretical and conceptual discourse in graphic design
has always been a bit naive compared to older more established cultural
practices. For example, all designers have been, and continue to be taught,
the history of type design in terms of the five families of type: Oldstyle,
Transitional, Modern, Egyptian, and Contemporary. This nineteenth century
terminology devised by type founders is completely out of sync with period
classifications used in the humanities. As such, it disconnects type design
from our general cultural history. Given this type of foundation, it should
come as no surprise that contemporary design discourse is also out of sync
with that of architecture, literature, and art.
Graphic designers are caught up in a media stream that
is very wide and fast, but not very deep. The only way to navigate in it is
to go faster or slower than the stream. To go faster you must be at the
forefront of technology and fashion, both of which are changing at an
unprecedented rate. To go slower you need an understanding of context
through history and theory. Graphic designers are predisposed to going
faster or slower according to their experience and inclination, but mostly
they are getting swept along in the currents of pop mediocrity.
How we communicate says a lot about who we are. Looking
at much of today's graphic design one would have to conclude that
graphic designers are twelve-year-olds with an attention deficit disorder.
Designers today are representing our present era as if they were using a
kaleidoscope to do it. Or more precisely, a constantly mutating digital
collage machine, filled with a bunch of old "sampled" parts
from the past, and decorated with special effects. Ultimately what we are
left with is a feeling of aggravated and ironic nostalgia. This electronic
Deja-vu-doo is getting old, again.
Maybe now it is time to dive below all the hype and
sound bites of the advertising industries media stream, where graphic
designers can have the autonomy to set their own course, even if it means
swimming against the current now and then. Postmodernism isn't a
style; it's an idea about the time we are living in, a time that is
full of complexities, contradictions, and possibilities. It is an unwieldy
and troublesome paradigm. However, I still think it is preferable to the
reassuring limitations of Modernism.
Unfortunately most graphic designers
are currently not up to the challenge. A few postmodern ideas like
deconstruction, multiculturalism, complexity, pastiche, and critical theory
could be useful to graphic designers if they could get beyond thinking
about their work in terms of formal categories, technology, and media.
In the postmodern era, as information architects, media
directors, design consultants, editor/authors, and design entrepreneurs, we
have been chasing after the new and the next to sustain excitement and
assert our growing relevance in the world. But inevitably the cutting edge
will get dull, and the next wave will be like all the previous waves, and
even the new media will become the old media. Then the only thing left will
be the graphic design, and what and why we think about it.
A Tribute To W.A.Dwiggins: On the Hundredth Anniversary
of his Birth, Privately Printed for Friends of
Hermann Puterschein, At The Inkwell Press, New York, 1980.
Jan Tschichold: a Life in Typography, Ruari McLean, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1997.
The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the
Origins of Cultural Change, David Harvey,
Blackwell, Cambridge MA and Oxford UK, 1990.
The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture,
and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, Thomas Frank,
The University of Chicago press, Chicago and London, 1997.
From Text to Hypertext: Decentering the Subject in
Fiction, Film, the Visual Arts, and Electronic Media, Silvio Gaggi, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia,
Hyper Text: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical
Theory and Technology, George P. Landow, The
John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1992.
Modern Typography: An Essay in Critical History, Robin Kinross, Hyphen Press, London, 1992.
The Origins of Graphic Design in America, 1870-1920, Ellen Mazur Thomas, Yale University Press, New Haven and
Graphic Design: Reproduction & Representation Since
1800, Paul Jobling and David Crowley, Manchester
University Press, Manchester and New York, 1996.
Design Without Boundaries: Visual Communication in
Transition, Rick Poynor, Booth-Clibborn
Editions, London, 1998.
Design Discourse: History, Theory, Criticism, Victor Margolin, The University of Chicago press, Chicago
and London, 1989.
Design Culture: An Anthology of Writing from the AIGA
Journal of Graphic Design, Steven Heller and
Marie Finamore, Allworth Press, New York, 1997.
Looking Closer: Critical Writings on Graphic Design, Michael Bierut, William Drenttel, Steven Heller and DK
Holland, Allworth Press, New York, 1994.
Looking Closer 2: Critical Writings on Graphic Design, Michael Bierut, William Drenttel, Steven Heller and DK
Holland, Allworth Press, New York, 1997.
Mr. Keedy is a designer, writer, type designer, and
educator who lives in Los Angeles.
A Selection of Essays from Emigre Magazine
By Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans. Published in Emigre 11.
By Anne Burdick. Published in Emigre 24.
By Rudy VanderLans. Published in Emigre 30.
An Interview with Steven Heller
By Michael Dooley. Published in Emigre 30.
An Interview with David Shields
By Michael Dooley. Published in Emigre 30.
An Interview with Edward Fella
By Michael Dooley. Published in Emigre 30.
An Interview with Mr. Keedy
By Michael Dooley. Published in Emigre 30.
In and Around: Cultures of Design and the Design of Cultures
By Andrew Blauvelt. Published in Emigre 32.
Discovery by Design
By Zuzana Licko. Published in Emigre 32.
In and Around: Cultures of Design and the Design of Cultures
By Andrew Blauvelt. Published in Emigre 33.
An Interview with Rick Poynor
By Mr. Keedy. Published in Emigre 33.
By Rudy VanderLans. Published in Emigre 34.
Copping an Attitude
By Rudy VanderLans. Published in Emigre 38.
Graphic Design and the Next Big Thing
By Rudy VanderLans. Published in Emigre 39.
That was then, and this is now: but what is next?
By Lorraine Wild. Published in Emigre 39.
Graphic Design in the Postmodern Era
By Mr. Keedy. Published in Emigre 47.
Skilling Saws and Absorbent Catalogues
By Kenneth FitzGerald. Published in Emigre 48.
First Things First Revisited
By Rick Poynor. Published in Emigre 51.
First Things First Manifesto 2000
Various authors. Published in Emigre 51.
By Jelly Helm. Published in Emigre 53.
The Emigre Legacy
By Rudy VanderLans. Published in Emigre 56.
By Chris Riley. Published in Emigre 59.